frans de waal the ape and the sushi master

donald griffiths animal minds

sunday telegraph, 24 june 2001

Humans are animals. But how human are animals? Can they, for instance, think and reason? Are they moral beings? Do they possess awareness of self? Is there such a thing as animal culture?

The way that many scientists have looked upon such questions has changed dramatically in the past three decades. When 25 years ago Donald Griffin first argued in his Question of Animal Awareness that animals were conscious, thinking beasts he was treated with derision. Today Griffin's view has become orthodoxy. The development of Darwinian explanations of human behaviour has erased old distinctions between Man and Beast, making humans more beastly and beasts more human.

In Animal Minds, a new, updated edition of a book first published in 1992, Griffin pulls together the evidence for animal consciousness, self-awareness and emotion. Many animal behaviours, Griffin points out, are difficult to explain unless we assume that the animals are acting with conscious intent. Green-back herons often drop twigs into ponds, wait until minnows swim up to those twigs - and then seize the fish. 'Must we reject any suggestion', Griffin asks,'that herons think consciously about the tasty food they manage to obtain by these coordinated actions?'

Griffin, I fear, is conflating the method we use to understand animal behaviour with the explanation for that behaviour. If we want to understand why cats arch their backs when they see a rival, or why a female baboon sometimes sneaks off from her harem to have a secret sexual encounter with another male - or why herons drop twigs into ponds to catch fish - the easiest way is to assume that they are acting as humans might in that situation. Attributing motives and strategies is a good way for an observer to predict what an animal will do next. But this should not lead us to believe that animals really are human-like in their intentions. As the eminent ethologist Patrick Bateson has put it, 'attributing the power of making choices to animals, so that we can do more imaginative science, does not mean when our efforts are crowned with success, we have proved the animal has chosen.'

If Griffin wants to persuade us that animals are thinking, emoting beings, Frans de Waal wants to convince us that they are cultural creatures. A distinguished primatologist with the eye of a scientist and the sensibility of a novelist, de Waal has written a series of wonderfully evocative books about ape behaviour, such as Chimpanzee Politics and Good Natured. Like all his books, The Ape and the Sushi Master is a pleasure to read - beautifully written, elegantly argued and destined to be a classic in its field. Nevertheless, de Waal's argument is beset by the same kinds of problems as Griffin's.

'The standard notion of humanity as the only form of life to have made the step from the natural to the cultural realm', de Waal argues, 'is in urgent need of correction.' The transition of human beings to a cultural way of life must have been a gradual one. It is a process, de Waal believes, that is neither complete (because 'we never left human nature behind') nor 'much different, at least initially from initially, from the behavioural traditions seen in other animals.' Since human culture is rooted in human nature, and human nature linked to the natures of other creatures, so culture cannot be a unique human attribute.

Culture, de Waal argues, 'is merely knowledge and habits acquired from others which explains why two groups of the same species may behave differently.' Armed with this definition, de Waal shows convincingly that many non-human species possess culture. Some monkeys wash soiled sweet potatoes in a stream, a habit that one monkey seems to have learned from another and is peculiar to this particular troop. Certain groups of chimpanzees have been observed cracking open notoriously hard palm-nuts, using two stones as 'hammer' and 'anvil'. Some humpback whales envelop prey with clouds of bubbles, a behaviour which again seems learned and peculiar only to certain groups.

The trouble, however, lies with de Waal's definition of culture. Humans do not simply acquire habits from others. We also constantly innovate, transforming ourselves, individually and collectively, in the process. In the six million years since the evolutionary paths of humans and chimpanzees diverged, the behaviour and lifestyles of chimpanzees have barely changed, give or take a nut-cracking behaviour or two. Human behaviour and lifestyles have transformed out of all recognition. All animals have an evolutionary past. Only humans make history.

Many animals may well be cultural creatures under de Waal's definition. But humans are entirely different sorts of cultural beings. It helps little in understanding either animal or human behaviour in lumping everything together under a single (minimal) definition of 'culture'.

How humans see animals, de Waal rightly points out, is closely linked to how we see ourselves. The line between animals and humans is not cast in stone (or in nature) but changes according to changing philosophical self-perceptions. Western scientists, de Waal argues, have difficulties in seeing animals as cultured because Western philosophies and religions stress the exceptional character of humans. Japanese scientists, on the other hand, brought up in philosophies that believe in the spiritual connectedness of all living things, have, de Waal observes, no such difficulties. What this suggests is that the perception of animals as cultured is as much a philosophical stance as the denial of animal culture. Perhaps the increasing tendency of Western scientists to redraw the boundaries between Man and Beast, has as much to with a philosophical desire to diminish the standing of humans, as it has with scientific data.